At the Table: Tala American Bistro offers unique flavor combinations

Sunday, June 23, 2013
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Cedar baked salmon, left, and black pepper boneless fried chicken are among the offerings at Tala American Bistro in Latham.
Cedar baked salmon, left, and black pepper boneless fried chicken are among the offerings at Tala American Bistro in Latham.

— Just off of Route 9, attached to the Rumors salon, is a portal to Manhattan. At least, that’s what it felt like as we walked through the door of Tala American Bistro, the newest venture by restaurateur Angelo Mazzone.

We were quickly seated at a table inside (the evening had grown too chilly for dining on the patio), where we admired the decor as menus and a basket of bread were delivered. The restaurant is cozy in size, but the decor is very modern, done in black and white with touches of silver and pale lilac.

It’s a sleek and hip sort of space, with a bubble motif carried through some of the wall partitions and the chandeliers, made from clusters of small glass globes. Chic, but also a bit noisy — this isn’t the best place for a quiet, romantic dinner, if that’s what you’re after.

It took us a while to decide on our orders; the menu isn’t tremendously long, but most of the dishes are innovative and complex, the sorts of offerings that you have to study and consider, wondering whether the flavor combinations actually sound good to you.

After we settled on our choices, we were left to nibble on two kinds of warm bread, one an herbed focaccia, the other a faintly Parmesan-flavored crown roll (a large, four-peaked dinner roll, definitely big enough to share). Both were quite tasty, though my husband noted later on that we hadn’t been brought any butter or olive oil to go with the breads, which he thought was a bit odd.

Whetting appetites

Our appetizers came fairly quickly. I ordered the mozzarella “cigars,” which were like no mozzarella sticks I’ve ever had. Rather than breaded and deep-fried cheese logs, these were long, thin tubes that seemed to be made from crispy egg roll wrappers. Inside was a bit of fresh mozzarella, some thin strips of tomato and a few small basil leaves. There were only three, just enough to whet the appetite, and they came with a perfectly good marinara sauce on the side and a drizzle of basil oil. Neither was needed, considering how much flavor was already packed inside the “cigars.”

My husband ordered the Malaysian pork belly skewers, three skewers, each spearing two cubes of pork belly, placed over a bit of rice and some sweet-and-sour-like sauce. The pork belly was perfectly cooked, with a little bit of grill flavor to them and a consistency that melted in your mouth, and the meat went nicely with the accompanying sauce, though my husband thought it would have been better if some had been cooked onto the meat.

We finished off the appetizers and didn’t have to wait long for the main course.

I ordered the cedar baked salmon with brown sugar glaze and cucumber raita, served with mashed potatoes and a salad of shaved fennel and asparagus bits in a lemon dressing. Our server had warned me that the salmon was usually served medium, and we settled on medium-well for me since I don’t care for underdone fish.

Meeting the challenge

The result was perfect: The meat was evenly cooked, yet still nicely juicy. Kudos to the chef — it’s easy enough to leave something a bit undercooked, but it’s much trickier to hit that sweet spot where the meat is thoroughly done but not overdone. If there was any room for improvement here at all, it would be with the brown sugar glaze, of which I wish there’d been a bit more.

The salad wasn’t bad, a nice counterpoint to the other flavors on the plate, but I was more impressed by the mashed potatoes. Yes, they’re just mashed potatoes, nothing fancy, no garlic or cheese or truffle butter or what have you. But sometimes, it can be easier for a chef to hide behind fancy flavors to conceal a lack of basic skill; sometimes, it’s doing the simple things really, really well that is the mark of a good chef. And these potatoes were perfect: creamy, fluffy and flavorful.

My husband ordered the black pepper boneless fried chicken, which was served with mashed potatoes, some sautéed mushrooms and a bit of tomato sauce. You wouldn’t think that tomato sauce would make sense here, but the flavor worked very well with everything else on the plate. And the chicken was quite good, he said, with one piece of white meat and one of dark meat, both tasty and juicy although he found the crispy coating was a little too browned.

We managed to finish everything on our plates, and while we were satisfied, we weren’t stuffed, which was a good thing, since the dessert menu looked so tempting. My husband ended his meal with a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, served with vanilla ice cream. The berry flavors were bright and bold, and the dish overall was a hit with him, though he did note that the crisp part was a little bit scant.

Dessert advice

As for me, I was torn between a few options, so I asked our server for her advice. She recommended the Reese’s Peezza, and I took her suggestion. The dish consisted of a flatbread pizza crust topped with chocolate ganache, chopped Reese’s Pieces and peanut butter cups and a scoop of vanilla gelato with peanut butter swirl.

I’m actually not sure if this dish worked for me; it sounded good on the menu, but the char on the crust was an odd flavor to pair with chocolate, and the middle of the crust was entirely limp from the wet chocolate and gelato. That said, you can’t go too wrong with ganache, Reese’s and ice cream — it was still a decadent treat, even though I ended up scraping the topping off of some of the crust and leaving it behind. Perhaps another delivery device could be devised for all of this gooey, creamy, sugary deliciousness.

All in all, we were satisfied with our meal, as well as the friendly and efficient service we received during our dining experience. Dinner for two, with appetizers and desserts, tax and tip, was $118.28, which is a bit steep for this to be a regular haunt for us, but we’d probably give it another go sometime in the future.

 

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